Page C1.2 . 03 May 2006                     
ArchitectureWeek - Culture Department
< Prev Page Next Page >
  • Mies on Lake Shore Drive
  • Asian Legacies

    [an error occurred while processing this directive]
      Current Contents
      Blog Center
      Download Center
      New Products
      Products Guide
      Classic Home
      Architecture Forum
      Architects Directory
      Topics Library
      Complete Archive
      Web Directory
      About ArchWeek
      Subscribe & Contribute
      Free Newsletters


    [an error occurred while processing this directive]

    Mies on Lake Shore Drive


    Rebuilding in Style

    The prehistory of these buildings begins in the 1880s and 1890s, during years of enormous growth for the city. Marking a recovery from the Great Fire of 1871, a series of freshly built flats, hotels, and apartment houses beckoned to wealthy Chicagoans. This marked a new era for Chicagoans who, like other Americans, had associated respectability with control of vertical space.

    While attached row houses were entirely acceptable for the fashionable in late 18th and early 19th century eastern cities, living above or below other families signified a loss of control, privacy, and above all, status. For much of the 19th century, and even beyond in certain places, such arrangements were relegated to those without choice or resources.

    A continuing identification of family stability and civic virtue with rural or small town life, at least rhetorically, also didn't help the reputation of the apartment house. It had many prejudices to overcome before cementing the allegiance of the upper-middle class. Even after doing so, developers and designers hastened to emphasize, by language, plan, and appearance, the most fundamental domestic associations.

    End to Unlimited Luxe

    In the 1920s and 30s, these buildings were associated with luxury and prestige. But during the Great Depression and World War II, government intervened in the housing market. The financing of housing on almost all levels relied heavily on the availability of publicly funded mortgage insurance, which dictated a range of technical requirements. For instance, the high ceilings of another era were no longer possible for most buildings.

    Here and there, in the 1940s and 1950s, luxury rentals and co-ops were built in Chicago. They obeyed a new aesthetic and emphasized very different things than their predecessors. The buildings tended to hold more apartments, to make less space available for individual units, and to compensate by providing recreational facilities, small terraces and balconies, and newer mechanical contrivances.

    Along North Lake Shore Drive and North Sheridan Road, on South Shore Drive, and across a wide swath of neighborhoods, a series of 30- and 40-story apartment houses were built with almost identical interior arrangements. It was hard to find a single duplex or "roof-top bungalow" among them, although developers or architects sometimes arranged for a single example for themselves.

    Enter Mies and Modernism

    Several of these buildings had considerable architectural distinction about them, most notably the highly influential Ludwig Mies van der Rohe projects, starting with the Promontory (1949) on the south side, and continuing with the Glass Houses (1951) on the north.

    There was little interior opulence to them, and while the elegance of certain details confirmed the modernist sympathies of many critics and building residents and the compact efficiency of their glass-walled interiors pleased a new generation of apartment dwellers, their distinction did not rest on lavish spaces or appointments.

    Location, views, and certain collective conveniences were what sold. Apartment units shared collective laundries; bathrooms and kitchens shrank in size. Indeed all room dimensions became tighter. Dining rooms were now 8- by 10-foot (2.4- by 3.0-meter) areas that were, in essence, part of the living rooms. Servants' rooms disappeared, along with servants. The two-bedroom, middle-class apartment might be under 1000 square feet (93 square meters), its ceilings 8 feet (2.4 meters) high.

    These two 26-story towers of the Glass Houses are among Chicago's most photographed buildings and probably constitute the most celebrated apartment houses of the 20th century. Almost at once, 860-880 North Lake Shore Drive received international recognition and won an impressive set of awards.

    Mies van der Rohe's design, brought to fruition because of developer Herbert Greenwald's energy and confidence, helped move Chicago and much of America down the road toward modern steel and glass buildings as the basic prototype for highrise office and residential structures alike.

    Few if any of these later buildings matched the formal elegance of the $6 million Glass Houses, whose refinement rested not simply on the functionalist ethos Mies proclaimed, but on a formalist aesthetic which required use of some of the structural materials as ornament. The floor plans went through a series of changes; developer Greenwald persuaded Mies to make them tighter and less open, thus more appealing to American tastes.

    The two buildings contain more than 200 units; 860 North Lake Shore Drive was planned for 90 three-bedroom apartments, and 880 for 158 one-bedroom apartments. Many owners have created their own spaces by combining units. Modest in scale and simple in layout, the apartments enjoy views enhanced by the glass walls. This, and the opportunity of living in an extraordinary design, compensated the first occupants for any technical shortcomings, such as long elevator delays.

    Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...

    Author and cultural historian Neil Harris is a professor of art history at the University of Chicago.

    This article is excerpted from Chicago Apartments: A Century of Lakefront Luxury, copyright 2004, available from Acanthus Press and at



    ArchWeek Image

    One of the Lake Shore Drive Apartments by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
    Photo: Hedrich Blessing, courtesy Chicago Historical Society

    ArchWeek Image

    Floor plan: one-bedroom configuration.
    Image: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    Floor plan: three-bedroom configuration.
    Image: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    Living room with television, 1952.
    Photo: Hedrich Blessing, courtesy Chicago Historical Society

    ArchWeek Image

    Dining room.
    Photo: Hedrich Blessing, courtesy Chicago Historical Society

    ArchWeek Image

    Balcony, duplex penthouse.
    Photo: Krueck & Sexton Architects

    ArchWeek Image

    Dining room, duplex penthouse.
    Photo: Krueck & Sexton Architects

    ArchWeek Image

    Chicago Apartments: A Century of Lakefront Luxury.
    Image: Jeanne Abboud/ Acanthus Press


    Click on thumbnail images
    to view full-size pictures.

    < Prev Page Next Page > Send this to a friend       Subscribe       Contribute       Media Kit       Privacy       Comments
    ARCHWEEK   |   GREAT BUILDINGS   |   DISCUSSION   |   NEW BOOKS   |   FREE 3D   |   SEARCH © 2006 Artifice, Inc. - All Rights Reserved